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Can overconfidence be overcome in advance?

One hundred years ago tomorrow, the RMS Titanic left Southampton on its maiden voyage. As we have been endlessly reminded over the last few weeks, the good ship never made it to its intended destination of New York City. Instead, the most modern ship afloat sideswiped an iceberg late in the evening of April 14, and sunk with a massive loss of life only a few hours later.

Writing in the current issue of National Geographic, Hampton Sides put the disaster in a larger context:

“But something else, beyond human lives, went down with the Titanic: An illusion of orderliness, a faith in technological progress, a yearning for the future that, as Europe drifted toward full-scale war, was soon replaced by fears and dreads all too familiar to our modern world. ‘The Titanic disaster was the bursting of a bubble,’ James Cameron told me. ‘There was such a sense of bounty in the first decade of the 20th century. Elevators! Automobiles! Airplanes! Wireless Radio! Everything seemed so wondrous, on an endless upward spiral. Then it all came crashing down.’” (p.88)

In fact, the 20th century continued to be an age of bounty, thanks in large part to cheap, abundant energy. We got more elevators, automobiles, airplanes, entertainment, travel, and economic change (remember, many of the Titanic’s passengers were on board to move permanently to a new life in America). However, as a result of the disaster, radios, adequate lifeboats, and other safety measures were required on ships (and corresponding improvements were added to cars, planes, and many other things). People and governments had seen what over-confidence could do, and a search for balance based on truth was instituted – regrettably, only after the disaster. But on April 11, 1912, certainty was still high aboard the Titanic.

On Wednesday, April 11, 2012, the New York Times is sponsoring a conference entitled “Energy for Tomorrow: Fueling a New Global Economy.” A review of the topics and speakers makes one see “an illusion of orderliness” and “a faith in technological progress.” Led off, of course, by a keynote address from that “leading authority on energy,” Daniel Yergin, the conference struggles with the problems of so much energy in the years ahead.

For one of the morning sessions, the agenda write-up asks “Can countries be energy-independent?” and explains the challenges: “With increasing available oil reserves domestically, and new access to natural gas, the United States could become energy-independent of the Middle East for the first time (sic). What are the security implications as ownership of deep-water drilling is increasingly blurred – and will energy scarcity cause political fissures at home and abroad? And, what then for the petrostates, and the implications for their revenue from exports?”

There are similar challenges from too much natural gas, newly available renewables, and an abundance of new cars, although there is a nod to environmental cost and the problem of reaching agreements on climate change. There is no sense of urgency, only of opportunity.

There are 25 speakers, mostly representing energy firms, government agencies, or the New York Times, with a smattering of environmentalists, addressing via panels an audience of 400, split between the public and private sectors, who will have paid $1500 each to attend.

What seems to be missing from the conversation in New York is a sense of skepticism about the underlying assumptions for energy sufficiency in the decades to come. The agenda, speakers, and likely attendees remind one of what a shipboard symposium might have been like on the future of trans-Atlantic shipping held in the salon of the Titanic exactly one hundred years earlier. Maybe it’s inevitable that the hard questions won’t be entertained until the disaster occurs and we realize there aren’t enough lifeboats.

It is unfortunate that some of the experts affiliated with ASPO were not invited to this event. Chris Skrebowski and others could talk about specific prospects for future oil production. Charlie Hall could remind attendees about net energy and EROEI. Jeffrey Brown would introduce these folks to the hard math of net exports. Art Berman would bring a dose of reality to the conversation about shale gas. Bob Hirsch would remind them that there are two energy systems, liquid fuels for transportation and everything else for electricity, heat, and power, and abundance on one side doesn’t easily improve the situation on the other. Others could talk about renewables, and about the linkage between energy usage (or price shocks) and economic activity. If the attendees – including the New York Times editors and columnists who shape public opinion on these issues – heard all this, maybe the coming crisis could be better prepared for.

Another conference on “Oil Supply and Demand” will be held in New York in June, with a much more balanced group of presenters. Since energy is so crucial and our expectations so uncertain, let’s hope that policy-makers in government and business get as much accurate insight as possible to improve the chances of a successful transition to whatever is next.

Richard (Dick) Vodra, JD, CFP, has been a financial planner in Northern Virginia since 1985, and is President of Worldview Two Planning. He is a graduate of the College of Wooster and the Yale Law School. He has been following the Peak Oil and Global Climate Change issues carefully since 2002, and is recognized as the leading expert on these issues in the Financial Planning Association. He has been an ASPO member since 2006, and has spoken on planning and investment issues at each of the ASPO conferences since 2007.

(Note: Commentaries do not necessarily represent the position of ASPO-USA.)

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